Born Clifton Reign Griffith in Nineveh, Ind., Feb. 6, 1916, Cliff Griffith spent his formative years in and around Indianapolis. Like most young men from central Indiana, he was inevitably drawn to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
When he was 10, he and a few buddies bicycled to the Speedway to watch practice from one of the many trees that then surrounded the track.
Griffith was particularly enamored with 500 winner Pete DePaolo and got to watch his hero up close, when, through a unique set of circumstances, he sneaked into the massive grounds and Gasoline Alley. That adventure set the course of his life.
While studying auto mechanics in high school he built a sprint car that he attempted to campaign in the summer of ’34. It was an inauspicious undertaking. He spun twice on consecutive laps in his first outing, and then turned his creation over to Les Mundy, who raced it with some success until Griffith sold it to cantankerous Dizz Wilson at season’s end.
Griffith stayed out of racing for three years before accompanying friend George Metzler to a sprint-car race at the Salem (Ind.) Fairgrounds where Metzler offered him his car. Griffith accepted, winning his heat and finishing third in the feature.
His career officially relaunched, he became a force on the tough Midwest bullrings before and after World War II. Driving Hector Honore’s notorious Hal sprinter, the “Black Deuce,” Griffith won 27 features one season and the Midwest Dirt Track Racing Ass’n championship in 1946 and ’47.
During this time Griffith ran occasionally with the AAA, and in 1950 got his shot at Indy. Even though he qualified the ancient Sarafoff Special only as first alternate, he was ecstatic. His childhood dream was reality.
He made the 1951 500, but lasted only 30 laps. In 1952, he drove Sarafoff’s ex-Walt Faulkner record holder and was running third when the engine faltered with 140 miles left. He finished ninth.
That impressive run landed him a ride for 1953 that indicated he was equal with that day’s best, the Ed Walsh-owned, Harry Stephens-prepared Bardahl Special. The combination proved fast.
Just after cutting a practice lap quicker than Bill Vukovich’s pole-winning speed, Griffith lost it blasting into turn one. He received third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body, his teeth were knocked out, his shoulder, hand and back broken. A robust man, his weight dropped to 90 pounds during his six-month hospital stay. Few believed he’d survive, much less race again.
He did both.
But it wasn’t the same. He’d lost something, or so the top car owners believed. Stuck in equipment that didn’t match his talent, it was 1956 before he made Indy again, and, though he tried through 1964, he made only one more 500, 1961.
Still, until he died in 1996, Cliff Griffith appreciated that racing had given him more than it had taken.